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Hussein's Palaces

A sight for astonished eyes

By Janet Eastman
April 09, 2003 

WHEN allied forces entered palaces in Baghdad and Basra on Monday, they pried the doors open for looky-loos around the world to see what can be created with money, power and listless taste.

The spontaneous open houses brought out a mix of shock and “Are you kidding?”

Soldiers accustomed to seeing only poverty in Iraq found the gold-plated bidets surreal. Others, eager to kick back and do a little nose-snubbing at Saddam, flopped into formal high-back chairs – once occupied by Baath Party bigwigs – and fired up cigars. A Marine colonel said he’s tempted to wash weeks of war grit off in one of the white marble showers.

No one, however, was divided on this point: The long-whispered tales of $2 billion spent on opulence inside presidential compounds looked to be true.

Arched windows with bulletproof glass were draped in heavy brocade. Intricate wood fretting rose up walls. A king-size bed was outfitted in a cowhide spread. And a two-story-high crystal and gold chandelier dangled from a vaulted ceiling.

With Saddam Hussein, it’s not about taste, but size. The interiors are monumental, gilded and dreadful,” says Erika Brunson, a Los Angeles interior designer who has decorated palatial estates for Saudi Arabian royalty for 25 years. Some of the palaces have glimmers of Moorish and Moroccan styling, which are elegant when created by skilled craftsmen. But when mismatched and overblown, “they simply don’t work,” Brunson says.

Jarrett Hedborg, a local interior designer who has worked in Saudi Arabia for 10 years, says the palace decor “looks sad and corporate. It’s too bad he turned his back on his own culture, which has amazing architecture and design, and his own people, who, politics aside, are wonderful artisans.”

The palaces may seem extravagant, says Hedborg, “but if you want to see more of that, drive to Beverly Hills and look inside the McMansions. Opulence is all over the world.”

The palaces – so intriguing to United Nations weapons inspectors because of what might have been inside them or buried deep underground – were built by foreign construction firms working on huge civic projects who threw in a fortress or two to appease a president bent on revealing his ego through real estate. News reports tallied up to 78 palaces at his disposal. Ten are believed to be in Baghdad alone.

Brunson refuses to believe interior designers were involved and guesses style amateurs on the construction staff took a stab at it, spraying Arabic design wherever it stuck. Scattered around the palace rooms were also a geographic hodgepodge of Grecian-style pillars, Victorian spiral staircases and reproductions of French Baroque furniture.

The palaces look cold and uninviting,” says Brunson, “like barracks with Islamic doors.”

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